Let’s Talk About Kenobi

Obi Wan Kenobi is my favourite character. Original I know, but it is what it is. When the prequels were coming out, and even now when I rewatch them, Kenobi is my main point of interest. It’s the same when I watch the Clone Wars. As I make my way through the canon Star Wars books, I find any book that includes him as a character automatically ranks higher in how much I like it. If he features in the whole book, like Master and Apprentice or Dark Disciple, excellent. If it’s only a small scene, like in the recent release Queen’s Peril, I single that scene out as one of my favourites. I am clearly starved for new stories featuring my fave.

With that in mind, it’s safe to say that few future entries into the Star Wars canon have excited me in the same way Kenobi has. The excitement went into overdrive at D23 last summer when the project was at long last confirmed. No longer a movie, the story of our self-exiled Jedi would now be coming to us in the form of a Disney+ limited series. With Prequel trilogy star Ewan McGregor reprising the role.

Excellent.

Also exciting for me were the later announcement of the creative leads. Deborah Chow signed on as director/showrunner, and British-Iranian writer Hossein Amini signed on to write the series.

Even more excellent.

I think Deborah Chow is amazing. She does great work, most recently on The Mandalorian, and the decision to bring her on as showrunner for Kenobi is a good one. It is absolutely a step in the right direction. It is long overdue to have a live action Star Wars story helmed by a woman.

But in the early days after Kenobi was confirmed to be in the works, all of my behind the scenes excitement hinged on Hossein Amini. If having a woman helm the story was long overdue, having any kind of Middle Eastern presence at the Star Wars table is even more so. I’ve written at length about my feelings on Middle Eastern representation in the Star Wars universe, or the lack thereof, so the idea of finally having a Middle Eastern voice help tell the story on screen was beyond thrilling to me.

Admittedly some of this is a little selfish. For a series that is probably mostly set on a far-off desert planet, it doesn’t seem that unreasonable to expect some explicitly Middle Eastern-coded characters. Perhaps even as prominent characters, and not just as “third villager from the back”. It’s very frustrating that in a franchise that has spanned this amount of time, that takes place in countless varied locations, there has yet to be a significant named character that looks anything like me. The exception to this is Dr. Pershing in the Mandalorian, and if you just said “who?”, thank you for proving my point.

As I said in the piece linked above, the closest thing to a Middle Eastern depiction is the Tusken Raiders, though I refuse to accept them as the be-all-end-all of our representation. Or as any kind of representation at all, because I frankly find that offensive. I know steps are being taken in canon to portray them more sympathetically, and while interesting, it’s too little too late. I refuse for this to be the only way the GFFA sees me and those who share my background. It’s true what they say. Middle Eastern people are a forgotten minority. Conversations of increased diversity rarely include us and my hope was that with a Middle Eastern writer telling the story, we wouldn’t be so easily forgotten.

Then the announcement came down a few months ago, jinxed by my anticipation, no doubt. Hossein Amini departed the project. His scripts had to be rewritten to some degree, if not entirely, and Joby Harold was hired to replace him.

I admittedly don’t know Amini’s reasons for leaving, if it was his choice or a decision from higher up. But it is extremely frustrating that at the first sign of trouble, at the slightest hint of a struggle, the instinct at Lucasfilm is to find a white guy to take the job. Under other circumstances, I might have been willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I did actually give them the benefit of the doubt, back when it was announced that JJ Abrams and Chris Terrio would be brought on to write Episode IX.

That won’t be happening again.

The Rise of Skywalker is polarizing, and I don’t really need (or want, honestly) to get into it here. But my feelings, to put it delicately, are that when they were faced with a script they didn’t like, and a time crunch for Episode IX, they hired a couple of white, middle aged fanboys to complete the project. Which they did in possibly the most “I used to play this game with my Kenner action figures all the time” kind of way. There was no fresh perspective, no new way of addressing story points, frankly not much depth beyond what the actors chose to bring to their parts (because it really doesn’t sound like it was there on the page). And frankly, with a director infamous for not being able to stick the landing and the writer of Batman vs. Superman on board, I’m not entirely sure what I expected.

Now they’ve hired a man with no television writing experience to take over Kenobi. And I cannot figure out why.

Well, I know why. These kinds of jobs never come easy to BIPOC writers. You’d only have to look at David Benioff and Dan Weiss absolutely failing upwards into their role on Game of Thrones. I’m hard pressed to imagine any BIPOC creator showing up, having no idea what they’re doing, and deciding to use the most expensive series in the history of television as their own personal film school. And these two were actually given an entire Star Wars trilogy of their own before the deal fell through!

Though I do think their trilogy deal ended in part due to their admission of inexperience and upward-failing on Game of Thrones. The optics of that are not great now that more and more attention is being paid to the fact that white men are so easily given opportunities often denied to literally everyone else. But it frustrates me that this lesson was not learned with Kenobi.

Why was Joby Harold the best person for the job? Not only does he not have television experience, but the writing experience he does have is mediocre at best. The films he has written were neither commercially nor critically successful, so what is it they see in him? It’s hard for this to feel like a meritocracy when the departed writer has far more merit than the incoming writer. Why must a writer of colour have a prolific resume with very few misses, if any, to even be considered for a project like this? Why is Lucasfilm’s default move to go for a white man, no matter how unqualified he may be? This is Star Wars we’re talking about. You can’t tell me there were absolutely no other writers interested. Hell, I’m interested. And I’ve actually got television writing experience.

They cannot be unaware of the fanfare and elation that accompanies every marginalized voice being given the opportunity to tell a story in this universe (see the announcements for Leslye Headland and Taika Waititi’s projects). The new tendency seems to be that Lucasfilm wants to play it “safe”, though that usually means erring on the side of less representation. Though The Mandalorian is a great success, it has received criticism for its largely male cast. The recent announcement of The Bad Batch animated series was met with similar hesitation, since a series focused on clones doesn’t naturally include a way to include women, or any non-clones really, in a major role.

I’m not naive. When it comes to the creatives they hire, I know what “safe” means to a large corporate entity worried about maintaining subscribers to their streaming service. It means white and it means male. Though I personally think Deborah Chow’s career as a whole was enough reason to give her the showrunner job, I’m almost positive she wouldn’t have been considered if she hadn’t already worked on the very well received Mandalorian.

But this is Obi Wan Kenobi. He is not some new, risky story. He is a fan favourite. This chapter of his life has been speculated about, written about (Kenobi by John Jackson Miller, Master and Apprentice short story in FACPOV by Claudia Gray), and imagined by fans since we learned why he was on Tatooine in the first place. I can hardly think of a safer project in which to give a BIPOC writer a shot at telling a story in the galaxy far, far away from their own certain point of view.

I am devastated at the loss of our first chance at a Middle Eastern writer being able to tell an onscreen Star Wars story. But I think I would have been less upset if the job had gone to another marginalized creator. A woman. A writer of colour. If it had gone to a woman of colour I might have passed out from joy.

As of this post, Harold is still the series writer. Production was due to start this month using his scripts, but with the ongoing pandemic, I imagine that’s been pushed back yet again. It may be too late for this, and I know I don’t have much of a platform, but I implore Lucasfilm: You have the extra time. Use it. Get writers of colour in that room. Get women in that room. The opportunities are hard enough for BIPOC writers to come by, particularly in franchises this large. It falls on Lucasfilm, as a giant in the industry to open what doors they can for marginalized voices. We have stories to tell. We have value. Help us take that first step into a larger world.

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